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16 March 2022

Letter from Essex: Southend, land of cockles and candyfloss, is a city at last

The former MP David Amess campaigned fiercely for city status, and in the wake of his murder his wish has been granted. Does this promise Southend a brighter future?

By Tim Burrows

It is the morning that Southend will become a city and the weather is predictably grim, full of mizzle, and cold that finds its way into the gaps of my coat. If it really is a city, the seaside settlement where the Thames meets the North Sea is one from some imagined past, greyscale like a film shown in the back of an old picture palace.

The weather fits a curiously sombre atmosphere. Southend was awarded city status as a gesture from the British government after the murder of David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West, in October 2021. The awarding of city status was a long-term campaign for Amess, and in the chamber of Southend’s Civic Centre councillors are arriving to pay tribute. I look down from the balcony at the assorted best hats and suits, skullcaps and turbans, medals and insignia, and moustaches that look like they belong in the last world war. Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall arrive to present the “letters patent” from the Queen that legally gives Southend the right to become a city. The royals are late, “for which I can only apologise profusely”, says Charles. They have arrived dressed in sombre tones, presumably in tribute to Amess. “How we all wish we could celebrate the occasion without the dreadful events which took the life of such a devoted public servant.”

Charles links the attack on the MP with the war in Ukraine, and talks of fighting for freedom. The proceedings feel more like a memorial service than a municipal celebration. Earlier, a choir from a Southend school sang “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” and it was announced that Amess will be posthumously awarded the freedom of the city; Ann Widdecombe turned up to speak on behalf of Amess’s widow, Julia.

One Conservative councillor says Amess “literally built this city”. This would be news to men such as my grandfather Christopher Hevey, an Irishman who lived in a council house with his wife and seven children. He fell into the building trade, becoming a site foreman in Southend at a time when Essex was being made by migrants. He helped create the new estates and roads and laid the foundations of the large shopping centre near Southend Victoria station, a couple of minutes’ walk from where the ceremony is taking place. If anyone built this city, it was people like him.

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An Essex man’s heart may be in Basildon or Billericay but his soul could be said to be in Southend. Unlike the new towns, Southend wasn’t planned to be the populous place it is today but ballooned when London’s working classes visited and liked what they saw – the cockles, the drink, the fairgrounds and the escape. Southend came to epitomise the open skies; the frivolities made suddenly accessible by cheap train travel.

Southend is resourceful. The 1.33-mile-long pier – built in 1830 for paddle steamers to bring trippers to and from this burgeoning Essex town, ensuring boats wouldn’t be beached closer to the shoreline at low tide – was the work of local entrepreneurs. It still has the air of being full of people who know how to make a quick buck, whether in a trade or in the City.

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My uncles used to take squirrel monkeys down to the seafront, asking day-trippers if they wanted to be photographed with one. When these monkeys weren’t being taken down the prom for their day’s work, my nan had to look after them, dressing them in nappies to preserve the carpets.

Southend’s identity has long felt unmoored from anything tangible. It started as “south end”, the old name for the coastal part of Prittlewell, which was once the main settlement up the hill and has now been relegated to the status of a suburb. Businessmen fretted about Southend’s lower-class tourists. The town acquired such a bad name that a local store-owner wrote an open letter to the people of Southend suggesting that it change its name to Thamesmouth.

Much of the land around Southend was used for brickfields to build parts of London, but after Londoners fell in love with the sea air many swapped the unsanitary, industrialised and precarious rental conditions of the East End for ownership of a modest plot on which to build a low-cost bungalow – land that farmers hit by the agricultural depression could no longer make pay. The properties were often weekend retreats at first, but dissatisfaction with city life, or later the Blitz, led many to make the leap permanently, despite the lack of made-up roads, heating and water (the latter was usually found in a pump at the end of the track). It is partly how my father’s family came to be in south Essex: my great-grandfather built a typical rectangular bungalow in the woods of Thundersley.

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At the heart of all this land-selling was a character called Frederick Francis Ramuz, who set up days out to Essex fields with promises of cheap return fares that had lunch and a tipple included. According to his obituary in the Southend Standard, he sold more than 50,000 acres of land in his lifetime, largely bought from farmers in financial straits. He was so integral to the making of Southend, first selling to wantaway Londoners and then to developers, that he became the town’s mayor in 1898.

The seaside town’s success meant the population doubled between 1900 and 1910 to 70,000; it is now 180,000 but feels larger due to the density of the residential area that butts up against the green belt to the west. The influence of developers such as Ramuz led to the densely populated stretch of suburbs from Shoeburyness to Hadleigh, but the building boom also baked in the huge inequality we see in Southend today. To the east of where I live in Southchurch are the big houses of Thorpe Bay, a suburb of large 1920s dream-palaces built in reaction to the brash booming seaside town. It is arranged around a golf course, lawn tennis club and yacht club – and, in the same prim way that Frinton on Essex’s north coast reacted to the shock of Clacton, there are no pubs. To the west is the Kursaal Ward, one of the most deprived areas in the UK, where fuel poverty leads to food banks and homelessness.

All this building has come at a cost. Despite being by the sea, Southend has problems with air pollution. The green belt that cockneys had to leap over to come to Southend is being steadily built on to create homes for salaried commuters, exacerbating rather than solving an acute housing crisis in the town.

There is talk of solutions to problems: trams for the traffic, and a trickle of carbon-neutral council housing. But in Southend real change always seems to be just out of reach in that distant, hopeful but never materialising future – and so locals are forgiven for greeting new ideas with a dose of cynicism.

The arbitrariness of the announcement that Southend was to be a city fed into an already fertile feeling of apathy among residents. There is talk of it being a vanity project. Sam Duckworth, a musician better known under the moniker Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, wants to challenge such cynicism. He has been working with the council on the cultural initiatives and says that although he never shared Amess’s right-wing politics, he could see that his “enthusiasm for the city project was bouncing off the walls”.

“We’re Southend and we make good of circumstances,” Duckworth says. “We are the only city on the estuary now… It gives us one year to celebrate who we are as residents of the Southend community.” He says that resident-led thinking will be key to the city’s future success and that skills are important. He has been involved in a council-backed campaign by a local arts cooperative to wrestle Southend’s abandoned amusement palace, the Kursaal, out of the grasp of an investment fund and into the community’s hands.

There are just enough green shoots to suggest a potentially brighter future. The Focal Point Gallery has welcomed the best of UK and international art over recent years, while the Beecroft Art Gallery’s East London Group exhibition was featured on Sky Arts and the arts institution Metal offers education and cultural enrichment opportunities to people around south Essex.

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But Southend is still famous for decay at its commercial heart, its high street, which was featured in a BBC Panorama film in 2020. The seafront, with its candyfloss and doughnuts and arcade amusements, seems to have been pandemic-proof in a way the high street hasn’t.

As if to accentuate this, Charles and Camilla do not visit the high street, but instead meet excited locals and business-owners outside the seafront amusement park Adventure Island. I meet a brother and sister from Southend who say they are thrilled to have met the future king. They were born on Eastwood Road North, the same road where David Amess was murdered. “It’s just terribly sad the way we’ve become a city, it’s bittersweet,” says the sister, Sally Appleby. “Would we have become a city had it not happened?”

When I was a child Southend felt like an oddly dreamlike place. It even had an attraction called Never Never Land that filled the cliffs opposite the pier with fairy castles. Amess, an electrician’s son from Forest Gate who won big when he was elected in Thatcherite south Essex – first Basildon, then Southend West – always reminded me of Peter Pan. In all his pictures he looked like a man who couldn’t believe his luck. He was taken with silly moments of PR, such as when he dressed up as a knight and rode through the local woods on horseback after he was knighted by the Queen. In the English culture of appearances, this kind of stuff makes a political career. But Southend is in need of much more than good cheer these days. Southend needs organisation, a plan.

I visit the site of Never Never Land before returning home. It remains a nostalgic yet exuberant memory of my youth – Southend’s temporal essence made real. But perhaps it’s now time we grew up.

“The Invention of Essex” by Tim Burrows will be published by Profile Books in 2023

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This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global